Rome vs. Dublin: a Tale of Two Cities

(Italian version here)

Romans generally are not fond of comparisons, but having lived in both Rome and Dublin for many years, I feel I am in a position to compare the different approaches the two cities have taken regarding private and public transport. The two capitals are quite different, and Rome has quite a bit of catching up to do, but I will try to show that this will not necessarily involve large  investments, and that a paradigm shift in the approach towards transport is what is necessary in Rome.

In Dublin, as in most European cities, people have realized that focusing on private automobiles as the main means of transport has failed. Pollution and congestion, the negative externalities of cars – used as textbook examples in most economic courses – are now easily observable in the real world. The solution is quite straightforward and legislators are merely putting into practice textbook economics, tackling the externalities with higher taxes and restrictions. The externality is reduced and “internalized”, while new revenue is generated to fund alternative means of transport.

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Upon arrival at Dublin airport, the first difference that a Roman will note – after the  obligatory complaints about the weather of course –is how quick it is to get into the centre by bus or taxi, thanks to the ubiquitous bus lanes (lána bus in Irish). If there is more than one lane on a street, more than likely one of them will be turned into a bus lane.

It’s not necessary to spend billions of euros for an underground system, which in any case would take years to achieve. Sometimes public transport can be made more efficient simply by painting a few lines on the street to create a bus or cycling lane.  Having buses blocked in traffic together with private cars is rightly considered to be absurd: when Pearse Street in Dublin, a main road connecting the south of the city with the centre, started to be congested a bus lane was quickly put in place. Problem solved.

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In Rome, closing a lane to private cars because of congestion would be considered outrageous. Even in Dublin, some Pearse Street residents complained:  I heard one of the them use a typical Roman excuse: “public transport doesn’t work well here, this is not London” (Romans would of course use Milan or another European city). Due to a mixture of laziness and social status, a segment of the population will only switch to public transport when it becomes faster and/or more convenient; and if it’s not just poor immigrants and students that use public transport then there is a wider concern about its efficiency and quality.

In Dublin bike lanes are also very popular, and most of them are merely lines painted on the street. Here it is not possible to make a comparison with Rome;  I could for instance  mention that the former head of transport at Rome City Council, Stefano Esposito said that this type of bike lanes could not be implemented in Rome because they were too dangerous (why this doesn’t seem to be the case in the rest of Europe remains a mystery). The new mayor, Virginia Raggi, who was elected on an innovative and eco-friendly programme, has not made any progress so far on this part of it.

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When you reach Dublin city centre, you will notice that radical changes are taking place. Many main roads – like College Green, Dame Street, Nassau Street and Suffolk Street – are basically closed for the construction of a new tram line and a new link between two others. Where has the space for this new project been found? Easy: some roads are being closed to private transport.  This way Dublin is able to radically improve its public transport system, with limited investment and in a relatively short period of time. (In Rome, Metro C is still unfinished ten years since work started, and costs continue to rise).

Another thing that strikes Romans in Dublin is the absence of cars parked in streets of the city centre. Even in outlying areas, there are very few free parking spots, and the fees for these few are much higher than those in Rome, which are absurdly low . Most people park in shopping centres and in private car parks.  It appears that only in Italy people feel they have a right to free parking in public places, even in central areas where space is at a premium. In the rest of Europe paid parking is rightly seen as a means of taxing and limiting the access of private cars to the centre.

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Of course, finding a parking place is not a problem if you take a taxi. The number of taxis in Dublin is a source of bewilderment to our Roman friends. In 2000 the taxi market was liberalized in Dublin, and now the Irish capital has twice the number of taxis per capita than Rome. They are everywhere, charge much less, and you can get one with many apps (Uber, Lyft, Gettaxi). This makes it almost impossible to see private cars at night in the centre, as taking a taxi is cheaper than the parking fees and also gets you home safely and with your driving license intact (in Dublin the police really do check that people don’t drink and drive).

In Italy unfortunately taxi drivers are a powerful lobby and have managed to block any reform of the category, especially a much-needed liberalization of licences, which would lead to both an increase in the number of licenses  and an improvement in the quality of the services provided. The possibility of getting a taxi with just a few clicks at a reasonable cost would surely motivate the Romans to leave their cars at home, as lots of Dubliners already do.

This is therefore the approach that a modern city must take if it wants to respond efficiently and quickly to congestion and pollution,  and promote its social and economic development. We have explained that this approach is not a matter of financial resources, but requires a radical transformation of the approach towards problems and a firm hand with the lobbies and those allergic to change. Unfortunately in Rome this group is quite big: for instance many Romans detested former Mayor Ignazio Marino because he pedestrianized the Fori Imperiali, which created one of the most beautiful promenades in the world but made life a little more difficult for motorists.

The new mayor, Virginia Raggi of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, seems to be slowly moving in the right direction, but convincing an aging population noted for its conservatism and love of cars will be very tough indeed.

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